It\’s almost show time.
A young girl is about to display her newly-learned skills in her first dance performance. Nervously, she awaits the beginning of the show, fidgeting her hands and going over the steps in her mind. As someone helps her put the finishing touches on her hair and helps her get dressed, she can hardly contain her excitement. Fast forward eight years, and psychology junior Ewa Jabelecki is feeling that same anticipation as she finishes her hair and begins to dress for her performance.[costume]
However, unlike most dancers, Jabelecki isn\’t pinning her hair into a tight bun or putting on a lightweight leotard. She isn\’t wearing tap shoes, ballet flats or tights. Instead, before going out to perform, Jabelecki fastens a fake braid into her short hair and steps into a 30-pound Polish dress. \”You lean to move with the dresses,\” Jablecki said. \”I love Polish dancing. It\’s a way for me to connect with my culture. Some of the dances are still performed in Poland so I can dance them when I go visit my family.\”
For Jablecki, the daughter of Polish immigrants and a fluent Polish speaker, taking up Polish dancing seemed like natural choice. She began learning traditional Polish folk dances through her church and has since performed at numerous festivals across the country with her Catholic church, Our Lady of Czestochowa. \”Poland has a different dance for every region,\” Jablecki said. \”Some dances are meant to be performed for kings and queens; others are peasant dances. They are all very old and very wise.\”
Polish dancing consists of mostly partner dances, though there are a few that are performed as a group. For women, being a Polish dancer means donning heavy long dresses for elegant dances and shorter skirts for more fast-paced dances. The women are also required to wear head pieces and braids that are indicative of the region of Poland where the dance originated.
For Jablecki, the highlight of her Polish dancing career was when she traveled to Rzeszowm, Poland when her church was invited to participate in a national Polish festival with 45 Polish groups from around the world. Jabelecki described the experience as an \”intense\” three-day event full of practices and performances.
\”It was quite the experience,\” Jablecki said. \”There were people from countries you would never dream had Polish communities, like Brazil.\”
Jabelecki said she will most likely continue Polish dancing for the rest of her life. \”I am very proud of my culture,\” Jabelecki said. \”Polish dancing is a lot of fun.\”
Being proud of one\’s culture is something physiology sophomore Lauren Easterbrook and education sophomore Katie Flanagan know well. Both are members of the newly-created MSU Irish Dancers, as well as true blood Irish lasses.
\”My family is Irish and my uncle is an Irish dancer who ran a dance studio in town,\” Flanagan said. \”My whole family — my sister, my cousins — we all learned to Irish dance.\”
[roots]Easterbrook also began dancing at Flanagan\’s uncle\’s studio, roughly six years ago when a friend convinced her to join. \”I already did other types of dance,\” Easterbrook said. \”And since I\’m Irish, I thought it would be a cool way to connect with my culture.\”
Flanagan, who has been dancing since the fifth grade, stated there are two types of Irish dancing. One type, known as hard shoe, is similar to tap dancing but without arm movements and with steps that require the dancer to cross his or her feet. There also is the soft shoe dance, which is generally slower and quieter. Irish dancing can be performed solo or as a group, which is called a Celi. \”I feel a connection to Irish culture when I dance Celi because the dances are handed down from generation to generation,\” Flanagan said.
As with Polish dancing, Irish dance costumes are elaborate pieces of cultural identity. Irish costumes are based on the skill level of the dancer and become more complex as the dancer improves. \”At the beginning level, it\’s just like your basic skirt and blouse,\” Flanagan said. \”Then, when you get to a certain level, you are given permission to get a solo dress that is one-of-kind, designed especially for you so it\’s the only one in the world. They have many colors and sequins and they range in price from $800 to $2,000.\”
Both girls have participated in a variety of competitions throughout the country, though MSU Irish Dancers does not compete as a group. Flanagan said it is the competitive nature of Irish dancing that has kept her in it. \”Solo dancing is a lot more competitive, which I really enjoy,\” Flanagan said. \”I get to travel all over the world and meet new people and learn different cultures.\”
[costume2]Flanagan has danced in roughly 10 Feis, competitions where the dancers attempt to move up levels, in each year since she began dancing. Her most memorable competition was when she attended the North American National Championships in Ottawa, Canada. \”It was a completely different experience from what I was doing before,\” Flanagan said. \”There were people from all over the world: South American, Canada, the U.S. I came in 55th, which is almost the top half. I am going back this summer to the same competition.\”
While Easterbrook has competed in three Feis and moved up to open level, which is the prize winning level of Irish dance, she said the competitive aspect of Irish dancing isn\’t really for her. \”I don\’t really do competitions anymore,\” Easterbrook said. \”I just dance for fun. My goals are just to dance and work on little things, this step or that step, or getting my kicks higher. It\’s just about the dancing.\”
Enjoying the dance is precisely why Easterbrook and friend Courtney Rockenbach started MSU Irish Dancers about a year ago. The two were not allowed to practice in IM circle because they weren\’t an official club, so they decided to make one. Since then, their group has blossomed to 10 to 15 people and they hold weekly practices. The group performs around campus, including a recent performance at Case Hall during British Invasion week.
\”It\’s such a great experience,\” Flanagan said. \”It\’s very unique. People say, \’Oh, it\’s just River Dance,\’ but there is a lot more to it than that.\”
Anthropology junior Carolyn Harper knows a thing or two about misunderstood styles of dance. As a belly dancer for the past five years, Harper has gotten many mixed reactions when she tells others of her pastime. \”It makes me so mad when people think being a belly dancer is like being a glorified stripper,\” Harper said. \”It\’s an art form and it\’s definitely not meant to be a strip show. Belly dancing was originally danced solely for women by women. It\’s not meant to be sleazy. It\’s a way to be sexy without being raunchy.\”
Belly dancing originated in the Middle East and is based on isolated movements of the hips, chest and stomach. According to Harper, there are different costumes for different styles of dance depending on where the dance originated. \”I\’ve learned a lot of different styles from different countries,\” Harper said. \”Belly dancing comes from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and many more countries in that area. Depending on the style, we may wear a sequined bra and belt, or a more conservative long skirt and something that covers the stomach.\”
Her interest in belly dancing began when her and her mother wanted to take a dance class together at Foster Community Center in Lansing. Though Harper is not of Middle Eastern descent, she said she instantly fell in love with it, and her dance instructor advised her to audition for the Habibi dance troupe. Since making the team about a year ago, she has embraced the style even more and has had many opportunities to perform with the group. The roughly 20-member group performed about two gigs a week, including performances at venues such as the Arab International festival, the Renaissance festival and county fairs throughout the state. Harper said one thing she loves about the dance troupe is it embraces all ages and all body types.[harper]
\”I might be one of the youngest in the group,\” Harper said. \”The oldest woman is probably in her 60s. I think there are a lot of misconceptions that all belly dancers are model-like and stick-thin, but it\’s not like that. It is very accepting of voluptuous body types. It\’s so nice to find a dance where you don\’t have to have a ballet dancer\’s body.\”
Besides helping with her self-confidence, Harper said despite the age differences between her and the other dancers, they have formed a special bond. \”I know it sounds corny to say it\’s like a sisterhood, but it is,\” Harper said.
Whether dancing for body confidence or to reconnect with one\’s heritage, cultural dancing is an interesting change from the familiar styles of ballet, tap and hip-hop. Polish, Irish and Middle Eastern dancing types are just a sampling of the cultural styles that can be explored. So throw out those ballet shoes and try on a sequined bra or a fake braid. Give cultural dancing a whirl.
That is, if you think you can handle a 30-pound dress.

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